Review: Urbański plays the war elephant 

click to enlarge Cellist Sol Gabetta - MARCO BORGGREVE
  • Cellist Sol Gabetta
  • Marco Borggreve

Beethoven's Fifth--the Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67--has often been dubbed the world's most popular symphony. Like Beethoven's Ninth, which may have caught up in world fame, it draws full houses. Friday's Circle Theatre concert was no exception--populated even by a goodly number of younger people. Krzysztof Urbański made it an evening of favorites, beginning with Brahms' Tragic Overture, Op. 81 and continuing with Schumann's Cello Concerto in A Minor, Op. 129, with guest soloist Sol Gabetta. Let's save the Beethoven (as Urbański did) for last.

Written in 1880 as a companion piece to his Academic Festival Overture, Brahms explores his concept of tragedy in his usual non-programmatic way. The mood filters through Brahms' muse as more dramatic than tragic, and, interpreted this way, is successful as a vehicle stressing its D minor key signature, opening with punctuated chords. Its many themes touch on the melancholy while betraying Brahms the symphonist with its formal structure. Urbański led a competent performance with nice work by the wind choirs.

The Schumann Cello Concerto has always seemed to me like a "little" piece, even though lasting almost half an hour. Containing much soft writing with no arresting thematic material, it is nonetheless well crafted, the orchestra never covering the solo instrument. Indeed Sol Gabetta shared the three-connected movements' introverted personality with a mild tonal delivery accompanying a high technical polish and good intonation. Her skillful figurations never brought her undo attention, yet she always was heard over the strings in back of her. A charming piece, well prepared, to close the first half.

Many extra-musical theories are proffered as to Beethoven's "meaning" behind his four-note "fate" motive which opens his Fifth and charges its opening movement by its repetition. I offer a more mundane one: He borrowed it from Muzio Clementi's Piano Sonata in G Minor, Op. 43 No. 2, written a decade earlier (1796). Beethoven is known to have been an admirer of the Clementi sonatas, and it's highly unlikely that he would not have known this one. (It's available on CD in a Horowitz recording of selected Clementi sonatas. The resemblance of their four-note figures is palpable).

Urbański's interpretive view of the symphony could hardly be any more distinct from Raymond Leppard's. Our conductor laureate and former music director (1987-2001), Leppard emphasized phrase articulation to a farthing; his phrase separations were clean, precise and early on too apparent. In all four of the symphony's movements Urbański adopts a seamless view, his phrases running together. For him it is still early on and his approach is also too apparent. It tends to cover some imprecise playing, which still we heard here and there.

Otherwise our conductor chose good tempi throughout, his dynamic control a marvel to hear, especially as the third movement softly oozes into the smashingly victorious Finale. Though a now proven prodigal talent, Urbański needs more time with his players to mold them into a "glorious" Instrument. March 22-23; Hilbert Circle Theatre

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